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Really Understanding Google Analytics is often like translating a language. Visit, pageview, transaction, keyword, these are all terms with clear meaning in English, and a very clear meaning in Google Analytics. The problem is that they don’t have the same meaning and the result is that reports end up with numbers that, from an “English language” perspective, just don’t make sense.

Think of it as translating a phrase into Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, whichever), then back to English.
english to chinese to english
Google Analytics isn’t that different. We have terms and phrases like “visit” “pageview” “time on site”, which have one meaning in English which we translate into an action online, interpret, and then have fed back to us by Google Analytics with an English language label. And like English to Chinese to English, the results aren’t always what they seem to be…

In this series of posts, we’re going to dive into the language of Google Analytics, and look at how each function is defined and determined. From the basics of the utm.gif to tracking more complex actions, to give you an idea of what your reports really mean.

Part 1: Introducing the __utm.gif

Quick refresher: How does Google Analytics record your data?

  1. You enter a site and execute a javascript which writes data about your actions into first party cookies.
  2. Said javascript then writes data calculated with a combination of cookie values and other data. This is then written onto a query string at the end of a _utm.gif request.
  3. Since the __utm.gif is hosted on Google’s servers, Google reads the request and logs the information so that it can process them into reports.

You can look at what query request you’re making with some simple tools. Download a plugin such as Live HTTP Headers and try loading a site such as “”. Or, alternatively, if you’re using Chrome, go into developer tools and check “resources”. In either, you can see the __utm.gif URL (some times there may be two, such as in cases where the page is using GA and Urchin) and it should look something like this (but in one long string):
&utmfl=10.2 r154
&utmdt=Cardinal Path - Web Analytics and Data Driven Marketing | Cardinal Path

This gives you an idea of what’s being written to Google. Right off the bat you can see a series of UTM codes, and a whole lot of data, which can help you troubleshoot analytics oddities that may come up as a user clicks through your website.


Over the next few weeks, we’ll go over each of the above tags and more, to teach you how to Really Understand Google Analytics.